I just saw something beautiful, although I had to forget myself to see it.
Ragamala Dance, a company of six women under the artistic direction of mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, opened a three-night run of their evening-length work Sacred Earth at the American Dance Festival in Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Thematically, Ragamala portrays man’s inextricable connection to nature through a rich combination of traditions such as Indian classical dance and music, Tamil Sangam poetry, Warli mural painting and Kolam floor painting.
OK. That’s the straight reporting of what happened, when, where and by whom. But it comes off as a list of names, which bespeaks how I began watching the performance. Once I dropped my need to know those names and the significances of all the individual movements, sounds and images I was seeing, I actually experienced the performance for what it was: a lovely, hypnotic celebration of the interconnectedness and oneness of all living things. Save the program notes until after the show, so information doesn’t interfere with the experience of Sacred Earth.
The notes (spoiler alert!) describe the traditional practices that Ragamala incorporates. Projections of Warli paintings—roughly patterned, white-on black mural scenes of people at harmony with the natural environment rendered in simplified forms—changed on the backdrop throughout the performance. Sangam poems were occasionally read, rhetorically rolling human life and natural landscape in with a pervasive sense of the divine.
And the opening image, of five dancers posed in a circle, offering their tilted palms to a central sixth, immediately became a Kolam floor painting as the dancers began to move. Drizzling a fine stream of white rice powder from their palms, the five women stepped in a spiral pattern that mimicked a Warli projection on the curtain before the show: a flock of flying birds forming a shape roughly like a numeral 6. After moving to the rhythm of the live accompaniment of vocalist Lalit Subramanian and violinist Anjna Swaminathan for a few minutes, the rice powder formed an internally curlicued circle, which was subsequently trodden into a white, depthless blur.
For the first third of the performance, I found myself thinking like a Westerner, trying to interpret each gesture and form as if they were words. I know that each mudra—the hand and finger positions made by the dancers—has a literal meaning, but I didn’t know the meanings so, for a while, I saw the movement as a text in an unfamiliar language, conveying a message I couldn’t get. There’s a kind of anxiety in that.
Exclusive video footage from the world premiere of ETUDES FOR ITALY by MARTHA CLARKE at the 2011 American Dance Festival. The work is part of ADF's PAST/FORWARD concert, in Reynolds Theater through Wednesday, July 20.
Exclusive video footage from the world premiere of LANDSCAPES 2011 ADF by BULAREYAUNG PAGARLAVA at the 2011 American Dance Festival. The work is part of the ADF's PAST/FORWARD concert, in Reynolds Theater through Wednesday, July 20.
Video footage from the world premiere of Rosie Herrera's DINING ALONE at the 2011 American Dance Festival. Herrera's company performs DINING ALONE and PITY PARTY through June 29 at Reynolds Theater.
The Nov. 12 performance by Urban Bush Women at Duke’s Reynolds Theater began with a lone dancer, her arms and shoulders rippling with muscles, standing under a misty spotlight as someone offstage read the names of African-American leaders and activists from Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X. It set the tone for the evening.
Though Urban Bush Women performances are ostensibly a form of modern dance, they’re more Toni Morrison than Martha Graham. The troupe’s six dancers avoid nearly any hint of classical ballet forms, focusing on athletic, dramatic stomps, slaps and chest bumps. Troupe founder and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar uses dance to give voice and movement to the African-American experience.
The four choreographed works performed at Duke were social commentary as performance, and not in a subtle way either. The opener to “Naked City,” a new work designed to represent the history of Harlem, began with the dancers, in turn, howling like animals as they sat in folding chairs. The show’s final moments, at the end of a long piece based on the diaries of African-American dancer Pearl Primus, showcased a kind of tribal dance hybrid, complete with chants from the dancers and an onstage reading of excerpts from Primus’s writings.
But the best moment, for my money, was from one of UBW’s earliest pieces, “Sisters,” which managed to tell a compelling and often hilarious story of childhood without a word spoken. Like Morrison’s writing, UBW’s performances are interpretive and sometimes inscrutable, but the focus on impressionistic, non-linear storytelling opens the door to something that is unconventional and beautiful, and couldn’t be expressed any other way.
Indy freelancer Sam Wardle attended opening night of The Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Waiting for Godot. Here's his report.
Waiting for Godot
Performed by The Classical Theatre of Harlem
Duke Campus: Reynolds Industries Theater
Friday, Oct 23
"Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can't make out," playwright Samuel Beckett quipped more than 50 years ago about his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. Oddly enough, I was left wondering, after watching the Classical Theatre of Harlem's retelling of the play as a Hurricane Katrina morality tale, if this new interpretation didn't go too far in the other direction.
While critics and viewers have spent the six decades since Waiting for Godot premiered wondering who symbolized what, and why, this retelling leaves little-almost too little-to the imagination. What was once a surreal work about, well, God knows what, the Harlem reimagining places the play's six characters within parameters we can all understand, or at least recognize: The two tramps are Hurricane Katrina refugees in a wasted section of the Ninth Ward. Pozzo is a white slave owner, a throwback to New Orleans' pre-Civil War days as a center of the slave trade, and Lucky, his slave, is, well, a slave. Godot is the federal government, coming too late-or not at all-to the city that it so badly failed, and Godot's nameless spokesboy is the media, or the White House public relations machine, or whatever polite arm of society it is that the master refrains from whipping. Or maybe Pozzo and Godot are one, two sides of the same frivolous, oppressive coin.
Indeed, if there's any doubt as to the thrust of this particular Beckett renaissance, the Classical Theatre of Harlem premiered this production to massive crowds in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward. It's a tremendous and inspiring example of sheer, almost inaccessible art finding voice in a current event, but it's not necessarily true to the original.
Footage of the 2009 American Dance Festival program Past/Forward with performances of Faye Driscoll's There's So Much Mad in Me and Laura Dean's Infinity, as reconstructed by Rodger Belman. The piece Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret by Rosie Herrera is not shown here, but will also be performed.
Produced by Belem Destefani and Sarah Ewald.
Images of Doug Elkins and Friends performing Fraülein Maria at the 2009 American Dance Festival. Commentary and production by Belem Destefani and Sarah Ewald.
Frequent Indy contributor Kate Dobbs Ariail saw the show Monday night and just published this review at cvnc.org.
Images of the world premiere of Flowers of the Bones and a performance of The Rite of Spring by H. Art Chaos at the 2009 American Dance Festival. Commentary by Belem Destefani and Sarah Ewald. Produced by Byron Woods.
Exclusive photo call footage of Emanuel Gat's Winter Variations at the 2009 American Dance Festival. Dancers: Emanuel Gat and Roy Assaf. Commentary: Dance critic and correspondent Byron Woods. Produced by: Belem Destefani and Sarah Ewald.